Sunday, December 23, 2001

THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957)

My questionable Christmas gift to myself was finding time in these last few days before the climax to the Christmas season to watch this bad movie. The last time I saw it, I must have been 10 or 11 and I liked it, largely for its fantasy elements. Also, I was a fan of horror movies and, even though it cannot remotely be called a horror movie (though some might call it horrible), both Vincent Price and Peter Lorre were in it. My re-watching was fairly pleasurable.

A heavenly tribunal is called to decide whether mankind should be allowed to blow itself up with the Super H Bomb. Cedric Hardwicke is the judge, Vincent Price is the Devil, arguing for letting mankind self-destruct, and Ronald Colman (in his last film role) is the rathter ambigious Spirit of Mankind, arguing blandly for saving man. We are then given a speedy history of mankind, accenting the very good and the very bad. (Oddly, Christ is conspicuous by his absence, although it may be that the Spirit of Mankind is supposed to be a Christ figure). The immediate problem is that the bad would obviously tend to be showier--would you rather see Nero fiddling during an orgy or Isaac Newton get hit on the head by an apple? Luckily, Newton is played by Harpo Marx, so that scene is actually more enjoyable than seeing an aging and dispirited Peter Lorre put no energy into his brief scene as Nero.

The only reason to watch this movie is to see the stars (mostly second-rank) go through their cameo paces. The film is mostly a series of cheaply shot historical tableaux connected by tons of stock footage crowd scenes from movies about ancient Egypt or medieval Europe. I had the most fun with Cesar Romero (as The Spanish Envoy) meeting Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth--as a child of the 60's, I immediately thought of The Joker and Endora, although Romero displays no personality, leaving it up to Moorehead to supply the overacting fun in the scene. I kept thinking Queen Elizabeth would whip her hands around in the air and make the Spanish Envoy vanish! Groucho Marx is fun as Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island and Marie Wilson had a very short fun moment as Marie Antoinette. Hedy Lamarr is embarrassing as Joan of Arc and Virginia Mayo is almost as bad as Cleopatra. A few folks, like Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Chico Marx, have almost no lines. Charles Coburn and Reginald Gardiner take their brief parts (as Hippocates and Shakespeare) fairly seriously. I must say that ultimately, the Devil gives the best account of mankind, and Price is really quite good; his usual hint of hamminess works well here. Not exactly a movie to search out, unless you like bad movies. I had a fairly good time and don't feel too bad about it this morning.

1 comment:

poetbdk said...

I had no idea that Hedy Lamarr once portrayed Joan of Arc. Thanks for posting.

Ben D. Kennedy
www.MaidOfHeaven.com